By George Morse
I grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, when memories of the Great Depression and WWII sustained support for a robust national government. Democrats favored Federal spending for social programs, while Republicans prioritized infrastructure projects and the military. Democrats were willing to spend freely, while Republicans sought balanced budgets. There were a few extremists at the ends of the political spectrum, with Communists lurking here and there and right-wingers wandering around reading Ayn Rand and muttering about John Birch, but they were clearly out of the mainstream.
Then, from the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, passion and violence pre-empted the normal flow of politics. Newspaper headlines were filled with stories of assassinations, wars, revolutions, and mass movements. I became a high school social studies teacher in that era, and I remember years of intense classroom debates.
However, by the time Richard Nixon had waved good-bye and the last helicopter had lifted off from Saigon, it was clear that passions were waning. I expected that classroom discussions would return to the “old normal,” focusing on how government might best address issues such as poverty, racial injustice, environmental degradation, and women’s rights.
That’s not exactly what happened. Something changed. For me, it began with a memorable declaration by a student who said, “My family is rich. We earned our money. It’s ours. We don’t have to care about anybody else, and we don’t. People should take care of themselves. The government should defend the country and leave us alone.” When other students nodded agreement, it seemed as if “government” was falling into disfavor, maybe because the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration had tagged it as incompetent, deceitful, and corrupt, or perhaps because memories of the “big government” that overcame the challenges of the Great Depression and Fascism were fading away.
Genial corporate pitchman Ronald Reagan sloganized the new attitude when he said, “Government isn’t the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.” Since then, the throbbing anti-government bass line of the American political symphony has run through conniving politicians from Gingrich to McConnell, reactionary justices from Scalia to Gorsuch, bombastic broadcasters from Limbaugh to Hannity, religious zealots from Falwell to Falwell, miscellaneous fanatics from LaPierre to Bannon, self-serving plutocrats from Koch to Mercer, and finally arrived at the Trump administration, a strange entity clearly dedicated to undermining and dismantling every federal government department and agency.
Last year’s disastrous hurricane season might have been the canary in the coal mine, a warning that the next war, depression, epidemic, or natural disaster will again find us unprepared, and the question of, “Where’s the Federal government?” will be on the lips of even the anti-government crowd.
To lift a line from the music of my youth, “When will they ever learn?”
George Morse of Hamburg is a retired history teacher.